Peju Layiwola, artist and University lecturer, currently head, Department of Creative Arts at the University of Lagos, speaks to Mabel Evwierhoma, (Professor and Dean of Arts, University of Abuja) about her recently concluded collaborative pubic art project titled Whose Centenary? Held in Benin, Igun Street on the 6 and 7th of December 2014.
We all know that this year is the Centenary commemoration of the amalgamation of Nigeria. Why are you not categorical about the commemoration?
Whose centenary opens with a rhetorical Question because in actual fact the project questions the commemoration of the 1914 amalgamation that formed what is now known as Nigeria. There had been various activities to mark the amalgamation. A centennial song was composed; awards were given to various people an act that was heavily criticized in the press; and throughout the entire year there were several events across Nigeria tied to the centenary.
It should be noted that the amalgamation was a structure put in place by the British imperialists to unite both the northern and Southern protectorates without any input from the people who later became known as Nigerians. It was an arrangement done to ease British colonial administration of the country. Why celebrate an event given first of all that the motive behind the merger was anti-one nation, and also for the fact that when viewed against contemporary events in Nigeria, the amalgamation was not, and still is not, synonymous with unity, even in diversity. How unified are we as a nation today? The 1914 amalgamation was not the only amalgamation that took place in Nigeria. The 1906 amalgamation of the Lagos colonies with the southern protectorate did not warrant any sort of commemoration in 2006. Therefore, this 'Whose Centenary?' takes a different approach at reviewing and commemorating 1914. It also marks the centennial year of the passing of great Oba Ovonramwen, the king of Benin, exiled to Calabar, who died there in 1914. So this date becomes the entry into celebrating and commemorating the life of a king who fought to protect his territories against foreign incursion. We believe that Nigeria should not be defined by the colonial period alone because there is a rich pre-colonial history of the Benin people. There are certain structures in pre-colonial Nigeria that should be celebrated and sustained. One such structure is the establishment of artists' guild for which Benin was known. It was a way of keeping the art alive and vibrant so it can be sustained even centuries after.
So as artists, we decided to celebrate the rich cultural traditions of Nigeria in general, but of the Edo people in particular. In going to Benin, we identified with the fact that the great name Nigeria has in the arts derives from the several works from Benin and other cultural areas of Nigeria, that reside in foreign museums. Nigeria is a great nation with a peculiar kind of national history and great artistic traditions worthy of celebration.
Through multi-series exhibitions in Benin, the project comprised performance art, poetry reading, songs/choreography, dance, installation art, painting, costumes, photography, and video art. It was also collaboration between the academically-trained artists, traditional Edo bronze casters and their protégés in a series of community-based projects in Benin City. This ground-breaking art intervention began with a procession on the 6th of December at 11am, from the King's quarters at Akenzua Street through Airport Road, Ring Road, the Oba's palace and culminated at Igun Street. The Street is a world Heritage site and the home of traditional bronze casters in Benin City who for centuries produced the bronze works the city and country are renowned for. At Igun Street there were several art exhibitions and performances.
What I consider the most intriguing part of this project is the redefinition of boundaries of museological spaces in Africa. In using Igun street and other public spaces in Benin it takes the museum to the people and provides an avenue for better interaction between the community and the artists. Igun Street, conceived as a living museum, becomes an ideal space for this intervention.
Although this is the underlying theme of the project we are liberal enough to accommodate other views and are comfortable with interventions that may differ from this position.
Why did you decide to make this project a collaborative one and what were the challenges you faced while planning this collaboration?
I have always worked as a very individualistic artist professionally except when I carry out huge community projects in specific places within and outside Nigeria. This would be my first time of having this sort of collaboration and on this scale too. Foreign participation in this project also meant that it would have the much-needed exposure that it deserved and also provide the possibility of showing the works outside of Nigeria. Working with artists, and indeed, a large number of artists is not always an easy task but somehow given the expertise of the project coordinator, Jude Anogwih, we were able to pull this through without much difficulty. Names of participating artists were suggested given the body of work they had been inclined to produce. The artists in this first part of the project include Andrew Eseibo, George Osodi, Jelili Atiku, Elizabeth Olowu (my mother), Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Taiye Idahor, Victor Ehikhamenor, Jumoke Verisimmo, Ines Valle and I. Princess Elizabeth Olowu was also a good conduit between Lagos and Benin. Her intervention helped to sort out plans and negotiations in Benin whilst majority of us lived outside Benin. We had to make series of field trips to Benin. Jelili, Jude and I chose the sites of the various performances and exhibitions and also procured materials from Igun Street.
The major challenge was that of funding- such collaboration requires huge funding which artists find difficult to attract. Since this is a research-based project, the University of Lagos research grant would cover part of the expenses of fieldwork and archival studies. We still require funds for the other part of the two-year project which would include roundtable sessions, video streaming, a documentary production and exhibitions. A major part of the funding would be for a long term community intervention in training girls and wards of the casters in various arts. This we hope to make an annual event.
What was the main thrust of the various artistic projects?
The concept for this project is a celebration of a very unique nature. It begins with the adornment of Wura-Natasha Ogunji, one of the artists in Benin traditional regalia. Wura is African American. Even though her father is Nigerian, she never met him. She grew up with her mother and other siblings in the US and only came to Nigeria on receiving the prestigious Guggenheim grant for artists a few years ago. As a performance artist, she has become very well known in the art circles in Lagos. In her splendour, Wura appears like a Benin Princess dressed velvet cloth and adorned in coral beads. This performance by both Wura and Elizabeth Olowu becomes a means of welcoming Wura, as many other artists of the African Diaspora, back home to Nigeria. There is a sense of connectivity to the energies lost during the transatlantic trade and the middle passage with the carting away of several Africans. Through this performance, Olowu reenacts a regular duty she performs presently in dressing several brides and grooms of Benin extraction based in the West who return to connect with Benin through the dress culture. Wura adorned by the Oba Akenzua's daughter endorses her as a member of the clan- 'Omosowa' (a child as come back home). This return is also celebrated with songs and dances.
The procession kicks off from the king's quarters at Akenzua Street through Airport road and berths briefly at the front of the Oba's palace before finally culminating at Igun Street. Throughout the procession praise songs of various kings are sung. The stop at the palace is in recognition of the Centre from which this culture emanates. Wura's performance evolves into another which she titles Queen Sweep. She sweeps the Street at Igun and this opens up discussions on politics. The APC- led government in the state uses the broom as symbol for the party. Wura metaphorically cleans the streets of detritus left over by colonialism. The close of her performance heralds Jelili's chants, beckoning on the public to attend the church service in his 'Holy Ovonramwen Cathedral'. Jelili cuts an outlandish image, like Brother Jero, in Soyinka's scripting of a false prophet, he is dressed in an all gold costume. He rings a church bell frantically handing church flyers to people as they walk and drive along the streets. In another hour the service begins. Jelili's performance draws attention to the syncretic nature of most of Edo society. Held in an open filed beside a church, it draws attention to the once vibrant Street of Igun known for the art, which is now gradually replaced by Pentecostal churches. The well-known iconography of Christian worship such as the cross is replaced with bronze memorial heads which once served as shrines objects. Elizabeth Olowu through her project journeying makes a return to Igun in a grandiose style. Her songs and dances are celebratory of the inroad she made into the art of bronze casting learnt under the tutelage of late chief Osa of Igun in the 1970s. She therefore became the first female bronze caster in Benin and Nigeria today. Victor Ehikhamenor, in his usual style depicts chalk iconographic drawing in Benin shrines. His installation, My Bits are not your Pieces at the palace of the Inneh of Igun mounted right next to a bronzecasting studio and shrine with similar drawings, presents two sides of a coin-one as reality and the other as representation. This way art reinforces reality. My installation titled Face/off represents a thousand terracotta heads as a reference to the pillage of the Benin palace in 1897 by British soldiers. A number of terracotta tiles with inscriptions on them drawn from archival records by the British soldiers as they made their way into Benin are as revealing as they are shocking. In relating these historical facts in my handwriting, there is an attempt to bring closer and more assessable history tucked away in the recesses of the archives. The colour of the terracotta heads and tiles, complemented by the walls of the palace speaks to the appropriateness of the siting of this installation in the house of the head of the guilds of casters whose predecessors produced the plundered bronze heads that adorn several foreign museums today. Face/off creates a platform for bringing together works by several casters displayed along my terracotta pieces in a collaboration that represents social change and the blurring of hierarchies in traditional societies. Andrew Eseibo and Ines Valle reach out for old photographs of the 1970s of Igun Street. By superimposing images taken in 2014 with those from the archives, they come across a living artist who featured in the 1970 photograph. The placement of both sets of photographs registers these changes both with the physical structure of Igun Street as well as its morphing to meet with the realities of the 21st century and the passage of time. Jumoke Verissimo, the only poet in the group, renders her poem titled No Answer as a reference to the silence to numerous requests for the return of Benin Cultural objects kept in Western Museums. Burns Effiom captivated by the event arrive from Calabar to present a self-sponsored and captivating performance. Standing under an umbrella, he suspends photographs of the houses in which Oba Ovonramwen lived while in Calabar. The umbrella becomes a metaphor for both shelter and nurture. His piece is autobiographical. Effiom's extended family placed host to the exiled king while in Calabar. Taiye Idahor does a series of drawings representative of hairstyles in Benin. Derived from her recent exploration of hair as vehicle of cultural expression, she explores the various hairstyles and the coded meanings inherent in them. Jude Anogwih shows a video of his work titled Emittere meaning waiting. His shot video interrogates the concept of movement, mobility, migration and borders. Anogwih reverses a flow of water revealing that the sea could take away as much as bring back was had been lost. The video shown in the studio of Mr Eric Ogbemudia, Secretary to the caster's guild, transforms this unusual space and breaks the barrier and inhibitions of searching/paying for a white cube as exhibition space. Art can therefore be found in unusual spaces as well as appreciated therein.
What would be the attraction to Benin given that you are a Yoruba artist.
Well… Nigeria has very vibrant art traditions that speak to you each time. Every artist or researcher usually focuses on whatever interests him or her and often times one draws from a familiar culture and environment. Although my research work has covered several aspects of the visual culture of Nigeria, I seem to have defined my research area as Benin studies. I am a product of a mixed marriage- my father, Babatunde Olatokunbo Olowu is Yoruba and my mother, Princess Elizabeth Olowu (nee Akenzua) is Benin. Some of my works are influenced by my Yoruba heritage. I see myself oscillating between both cultures. Both are complementary. Indeed, both Yoruba and Benin cultures are linked by historical traditions and I see myself in that unique position of having the benefit of drawing from the rich repository of both cultures.
But then it is true that Benin features more prominently in my work. Part of this derives from the fact that my formative years were spent in Benin City. I schooled at Emotan Preparatory School, St Maria Goretti College and then finished off at Federal Government Girls' College, all in Benin. I had my Bachelors Degree from the University of Benin. In the Benin art school we were also inadvertently drawn to using Edo iconography and learnt about the rich cultural heritage of the people. Beyond the art school experience, I had the opportunity of working with several traditional Edo artists in their studios. The streets of Benin were laden with art- woodcarvings along Igbesanwan street, bronze at Igun, airport road and craft items everywhere you turned reminded you of the greatness of the culture. At home, my mother, Princess Elisabeth Olowu who is also an artist and the daughter of Oba Akenzua II (1899-1978) was one thoroughly immersed in her culture. In a sense she accentuated the interest I developed in Benin art and culture.
There was a component of training involved in this project. What would be the long-term benefits of such an intervention?
The wards of the casters were taught jewellery production and fabric design. A good number of the females turned up for this training. Bronze casting was usually a male preserve and passed on from father to the males within a family. This in many ways excluded the female who would naturally learn the processes since the art was practiced at home right before them. In a sense, the females are also gifted in arts but because of the religious strictures and taboo associated with female participation, they are unable to practice that art. The community workshops under the platform of this project provided a platform for the females to exercise their creative acumen. This way they could augment the sale of art products in the galleries producing mementoes and gift items that do not violate the traditions of the people. If this workshop is sustained for about five years a critical mass of artists would emerge.
Why is this project coming at this time when most events have come and gone?
This gave us the opportunity of seeing the entire year of the commemoration from an alternative stance and to position ourselves at a vantage position to evaluate all that had transpired during the year. December is also a good time to celebrate. The annual Igue festival comes up in December and most people are already in Benin for the Christmas holiday. I think December worked very well for the project.
Why choose Igun Street for the various art exhibitions and performances.
Benin is a cultural city and the home of art with lots of ateliers and artists working in the city. Igun for us is a living museum space where the art and artists reside. It was a homely and conducive environment for creative production. We sought to work in a place without disturbing the activities that went on there. Bringing our work into that space complement the existing artistic work already going on there. Igun Street is a historic place and home of bronze casting. These are the descendants of the craftsmen who made the bronze work that adorn the galleries of several foreign museums today. Doing this project at Igun was a way of celebrating the artists' acumen and calling attention to the great work they did and are still doing by sustaining the tradition of their forefathers. Nigeria is known for the arts largely because of this group of artists who work so hard in this laborious profession of metal casting. We owe it a duty to celebrate them and to thank them for keeping this tradition going for several centuries. It is high time the Federal government invested in Igun and provided new technologies that would enhance their production. It would not be out of place to give grants to the artists and improve their working and living conditions. The performance was also a wake up call to many Edo moneybags to contribute to the sustenance of this great culture that exists. In sustaining the art and artists we bring a lot of value to our people and culture. We owe the artists a lot as Nigerians.